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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Bringing up bilingual babies

Samantha Critchell Associated Press

NEW YORK — The world has gone global, and it might benefit children to speak that language.

Words that were foreign a few years ago are now part of the everyday vernacular in homes, playgrounds and schools. One nursery school teacher asks her class “Capisce?” after she gives the children a series of directions. Her colleague asks,”Comprende?”

Lunch boxes are as likely to contain sushi or arroz con pollo as peanut butter and jelly, as school groups take “field trips” across the oceans.

It’s not a far-fetched idea for parents to consider raising bilingual children in this environment — whether or not the parents speak a second language themselves. And the kids don’t have to wait for middle school Spanish or French, either.

Berlitz Publishing recently added English-Spanish board books targeted to children under 3 to its offerings of language books.

“Baby Berlitz Baby Animal Friends Spanish” features an audio component that allows children to push a picture of a butterfly and hear “Hola, mariposa!” Houghton Mifflin is adding titles to its Good Beginning board book series to include “What Day Is It? (Que dia es?)” and “Where Am I Hiding (Donde Me Escondo?).”

“Our mission was to create language products for all learners — that means all ages, all styles, all interests. Young minds are ripe for learning languages,” says Sheryl Olinsky Borg, editorial director for Berlitz Publishing.

Most young children in the world are learning more than one language as they are learning to speak, and sometimes they’re learning three or four, says Linda Espinosa, a professor of early childhood education at the University of Missouri-Columbia. Often, it’s circumstance that forces infants and toddlers to master two tongues so they can communicate either with both parents, a caregiver or grandparents, she explains.

“Age isn’t necessarily the most important factor in learning multiple languages. You can learn as you get older as well. The issue for most people is the opportunity — the exposure and demand to communicate in another language,” says Espinosa.

She adds: “It’s certainly not going to hurt children to learn more than one language at an early age and it might help them.”

She points to research that shows children who learn two or more languages at a young age have higher levels of cognitive flexibility and a better awareness of the use of symbols to communicate, and many even have better early reading skills. These children also tend to have a better ability to focus their attention because they have to decide when to speak what language and to whom, Espinosa says.

The important thing for children learning languages, even if it’s just English, is that they have rich language opportunities, including conversations with adults and reading.

Parents who are interested in teaching a second language to children often don’t know how to do it, says Borg, and they’re often concerned about their own accents. Starting out with simple words can help adult and child become familiar with the sounds and accents, giving them tools to move on to more sophisticated words in the future, she explains.

Borg says the Berlitz books concentrate on words closest to the children’s lives, such as identifying family members, animals and numbers. “We keep them close to the first words a child would say in English,” Borg says.

Geri Grobman isn’t fluent in Spanish but she wants her daughter to be, just like Grobman’s mother. It’s why she created a collection of bilingual dolls called Language Littles, plush dolls that say “I love you” in Korean, Italian, French and Mandarin Chinese, among other languages, when you touch their left knees. They also say “hello” and other basic vocabulary words when you squeeze their hands. The voices are recorded by children and don’t have an electronic or robotic sound so they’ll have similar speech patterns as their playmates.

“Children like something that talks back to them,” Grobman says.

She says that a lot of grandparents who saw their native tongue skip a generation are buying the dolls for their grandchildren. Another niche market is adoptive parents, especially of Chinese and Russian children, who take to dolls when they are going to meet the kids for the first time.

“It’s part of the reason we’re targeting such a young age. It’s a great introduction between these parents and kids,” Grobman says.